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Saturday, January 31, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 23.0° F  Overcast
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A touch of evil
American Players Theatre stages a classic Caesar
Not-so-noble Roman: Michael Gotch as Cassius.
Not-so-noble Roman: Michael Gotch as Cassius.

Contemporary performances of Shakespeare always confront one question: modernize the play to make it more relevant to today's audiences, or stay faithful to the text and trust that the Bard's words will stand on their own?

Although Sanford Robbins, the director of American Players Theatre's new production of Julius Caesar, makes some pointed political commentary in the show's program, he's chosen to root the play itself firmly in ancient Rome. Any 21st-century parallels we wish to draw - or not - are wisely left up to the audience rather than forced. (Of course, writing in 1599, Shakespeare himself trusted his audiences to make connections between their times and centuries long past.)

The result is a faithful production of Julius Caesar that makes the most of APT's outdoor setting in Spring Green. While almost any play can be performed under the stars, this one truly benefits from it. With two murders, three suicides, a thunderous storm, the supernatural appearance of Caesar's ghost and torch-wielding crowds, the drama might be diminished by an indoor hall. On a cool, bug-free opening night last Saturday, surrounded by trees and the darkening sky, actors freely strode the aisles and thus made the audience part of the crowd of Roman citizens.

Although he is the titular character, Julius Caesar (an understated but magisterial Brian Robert Mani) spends less time on stage than the two main conspirators against him, Brutus and Cassius, and his passionate defender, Mark Antony. As the conspirators, Jonathan Smoots and Michael Gotch are first-rate and play well off of each other. Smoots' Brutus is more mature and measured; his mellow, resonant voice pulls the audience into the cadences of Shakespeare's dialogue. Gotch's Cassius is younger and more quick-tempered, with a violent energy appropriate to the role. Gotch's distinctive appearance - it seems like a bad pun here, but he really does have a classical profile - helps him stand out among the large cast.

David Daniel, as Mark Antony, hits his stride mid-way through the show and delivers well his pivotal speech in Act III ("Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears...") in which he convinces the crowd, through skillful and rather manipulative oratory, that the murdered Caesar has been wronged by Brutus and the other conspirators.

Throughout the show, sound and lighting skillfully enhance the drama. Frenetic drumming pumps up the action. Particularly effective (and again making great use of APT's setting) is a lighting effect when the ghost of Caesar appears; the trees behind the stage are lit a bloody, eerie red. Some of the costumes are problematic, however, from anachronistic footwear to an outfit of Mark Antony's that looked distractingly like tan Dockers topped by a skirt. A resplendent white outfit of Caesar's - later ghoulishly bloodied - and the women's costumes seemed more appropriate.

But the main event here is political intrigue, not costuming. While Julius Caesar can be challenging to follow at times, given the gap between its language and our own, and also the large number of players, APT's production delivers without pandering.

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